A Section Devoted To Old Car Matters
On Welsh Roads in the 1920s
I had long been of the opinion that in the beginning motoring came late to Wales, where the roads are mountainous, the lanes narrow, and wealth less apparent than in more prosperous England. Even in the nineteen-twenties, wet Welsh Wales seemed mysteriously remote to a small boy taken there from London for summer holidays. As the Great Western express plunged into the extended bowels of the Severn Tunnel and in the compartments you plunged for the window strap, lifting the glass against the ingress of smoke and soot, this sense of remoteness was increased; we seemed bound for another world. Met at Cardiff for the eight-mile drive to our destination by a chauffeur-driven Overland tourer or Austin Twenty landaulette, glances would be cast by Welshmen at the train as they might today look at Concorde, and if there were traces of wet on the carriages it would be noted that bad weather had been encountered on the way by these strange travellers from over the border.
Thus did a motor-obsessed youngster enter this gentle land of hills so often misted in soft rain, and of small, dark folk whose language was as foreign as their appearance, and gravel country lanes along which passed singularly few motor vehicles. Because of their scarcity, all the more interest was taken in those that were encountered; envy was felt for the young bloods who actually went by at a good lick on noisy motorcycles, the different makes of which I and my friends were easily able to distinguish. The overall impression, had one given it thought, would have been, in those distant nineteen-twenties, of a land not over-provided with motor transport, and what there was of it hampered by twisty roads with frequent blind corners that restricted pace, few garages from which the Mex spirit could be collected in the two-gallon tins, unexpected cross-roads, blind like the lanes that ran between the hedges, at which bulb horns would occasionally blow, rear-wheel brakes squeal, and a close-shave, or even an accident, occur.
We children would wait indoors patiently for the rain to cease, rain typical of Wales, often a persistent drizzle that would be ignored by the coat-scorning farm-hands and others, but would cause some inconvenience to those peering through opaque windscreens or struggling to erect the hoods of primitive touring cars. Then, perhaps in the feeble evening sunshine, we would go out, hoping to see something interesting on those narrow, flinty lanes, meanwhile amusing ourselves by bending any convenient stick into the shape of racing handlebars and rushing about, appropriate sounds issuing from our lips, pretending we were riding racing motor bikes. (If Peter Ustinov does not mind admitting that in his youth he regarded himself as an Amilcar, why shouldn’t I admit to this childish practice?)
In South Wales there were more cars, of course, than had penetrated to the Mid-Wales agricultural area and to mountainous North Wales, stronghold of the horse. Even so, it was possible to drive into Cardiff in the 1920s and park easily and unmolested anywhere in the main street. Remembering these things, I have often wondered how many motor vehicles there were, running about the more backwoods parts of Wales in those times. Recently, by a stroke of good fortune, I have come close to finding out, having been able to study some records of licensing in the district of Radnor for the year 1921.
Radnorshire is where I am now happy to reside, although with considerable enlargement of its boundaries it has been renamed Powys. Although the inevitable and regrettable “improvements” are practised here as elsewhere – road straightening, widening of country lanes, and the by-passing for example of New Radnor – the sense of “remoteness” remains. Admittedly the one-time boast that there were no traffic-lights in Radnorshire is no longer true, because these have sprouted in the otherwise largely unchanged town of Rhayader; but they are only of the pedestrian variety, to prevent the summer holiday crowds from being bowled over by the enormous transporters which now pass through on their way, up from South Wales to the industrial towns of the North, finding the clock-tower at the picturesque cross-roads tiresome to negotiate – that cross-roads in this rather French-style town at which the locals still pass the time of day, propped against the occasionally sun-warmed walls of the shops. In 1921 the confines of Radnorshire were to the Elan Valley in the West, to Knighton in the East, to around Clyro in the South and hardly as far as Newtown in the North. It was, as I have said, a sleepy, peaceful shire, with the smallest population of any county in the land (which thankfully remains true today), a county devoted to sheep-farming, where the farmers were more likely to use sturdy Welsh ponies, popular now with trekking holiday-makers, to get about on, than buy the new-fangled motors. (Not all that long ago I met a retired farmer who claimed to have brought the farm-tractor into Radnorshire. It was still in his barn and it turned out to be a much later Fordson than I had expected . . .)
So, not expecting many motor vehicles to have penetrated to this shire by 1921, I spent far more time than perhaps I and my tired old eyes should have done, analysing the aforesaid tax-records. They relate to vehicles first registered in 1921. This might suggest that only new vehicles are recorded and that to obtain a correct total of those in use at that time we need to know how many pre-war vehicles were still in service. In fact, such vehicles are included, I think because, although number plates had been compulsory since 1903, so that vehicles must have been registered by then, it was in 1921 that the new Road Fund licence-discs were first issued, these having to be displayed on the vehicles. At the same time new-type log-books came into use, so that already-recorded vehicles would have to be re-registered. (I believe this “first-registered” date in the new log-books confuses some historians, who assume this to be the date of manufacture or first-usage of a car, whereas pre-war vehicles can be entered as registered in 1921.)
When it first numbered motor vehicles in December 1903, Radnor CC was allocated the letters FO. At the time I do not suppose the implication was apparent, but seeing them now tends to amuse – Cardiff was hardly better treated, being given the letters BO . . . If my assumption is correct, namely that these 1921 records cover all vehicles in use up to that year, not just the new ones, and if I have done my sums correctly, it seems that by December 1921 there were only 590 mechanically-propelled vehicles registered in Radnorshire. There may have been a few which escaped the net. But, officially, that was the total, it appears. Compared to the figure of 845,799 for the country as a whole by the summer of 1921, my belief that Mid-Wales was not over-ridden by motors at this period is upheld; and that total of a mere 590 cars, lorries, motorcycles, tractors and steam vehicles goes right up to December. Northern Ireland had more than ten times the number . . . Broken down, there were 332 cars and tricars, 241 motorcycles, and 17 heavy goods vehicles and tractors with FO registrations.
Looking at these records of 1921, it is interesting to see how many pre-war vehicles were registered then, so presumably still in use. The oldest number recorded is FO 3, carried by a Ford. Its h.p. rating suggests a Model-T and as these were not current until 1908 at the earliest, it must be assumed that cars did not arrive in Radnor until about then, or that the number was transferred. This Ford was last registered in 1924 in Herefordshire, incidentally. Only four other vehicles with FO registration numbers of below 100 survived the Armistice. These were a 3 1/2 h.p. Phoenix Trimo (FO 25), that ended its days in Wolverhampton, a Ford lorry (FO 50) still used in Rhayader up to 1927, a five-seater taxi (FO 86) for which the make is ambiguously given as “hackney limousine”, that moved on to Huddersfield, and a 3 1/2 h.p. Triumph motorcycle (FO 99), in use in Glamorgan, also until 1927.
Taking stock of these vehicles by makes, I was not in the least surprised to find that the most popular by far was the Ford. There were 181 of these, including the goods versions. A very large number, as with other makes, were registered as hackneys or goods vehicles, either because it was less expensive that way, as a Welshman would soon discover, or because railways were few and far between (fortunately, the “Great Little Lines” remain today a tourist attraction) and so there was great scope for hackney carriages, and goods-hauliers, of which I imagine ex-Servicemen became owners in Radnor as they did over the country as a whole. Indeed, the trend was prominent – all manner of makes were used as taxis, including both the Crossleys registered, five out of the seven Buicks, the only Lanchcster (which was of 38.1 h.p.; so presumably a pre-war example), and an Austin 20 owned by the father of the person who is currently rebuilding my 1924 Calthorpe. An amusing aspect of the new RAC horsepower rating for taxation purposes was the varying figures ascribed to Fords which must all, I assume, have been Model-Ts of 22.4 h.p. Due to numbers not taken up. etc., the last 1921 issue was FO 1088, allocated to a Model-T Ford.
The next most-frequently encountered make to Ford was the Overland. There were 48 of these. Willys-Overland had good agents, notably the Automobile Palace in Llandrindod Wells. Third place was occupied by Wolseley, with eight registered; one was of six RAC h.p., so possibly a veteran. Indeed, the h.p. ratings suggest many to have been pre-war models still in use in 1921. For instance, that six h.p. Wolseley, and a 30 h.p. of the same make. I think, too, that the 17 h.p. Leon-Bollee of the Duff-Gordon family may have been a pre-war 14/20, while a 7.5 Peugeot implies a 1913 or so Bebe. There was also an old 21 h.p. Flanders that was in use for a very short time indeed. Others of these 1921-registered vehicles, however, were not last-taxed until into the 1930s, although quite a number had moved out of Wales pretty soon, their original owners perhaps finding horses more to their liking . . .
Continuing to browse, other interesting items came to light. Such as a Model T-Ford fire-engine taxed by Presteigne UDC in 1921 which was still in use up to the outbreak of war. VSCC members rallied to that town in 1938, so they may have seen it; but it would have seemed fairly commonplace in 1939. Two Aveling & Porter steam rollers, of 10 and 12 tons, respectively, were in Council use, as was a Hallford lorry, one of them going to Surrey by 1941. Then there were a few unusual registrations, such as a Horstmann goods vehicle, a Vulcan Showman’s caravan, and a 3-ton Thornycroft proudly claiming to be a Show Special. There was a lone 40/50 Rolls-Royce, car number TB 40, which went to Autowrex of Leeds as a breakdown-crane. But there is evidence of enthusiasts, who would now be called collectors, later finding some of the old vehicles. For example, a 1 1/4 h.p. JES motor-bicycle was re-registered in 1967 and a 6 h.p. Matchless had turned up in Bolton by 1964. Some of the new 1921 models found their way to remote Radnorshire, like two of the flat-twin Rover Eights, and a couple of 11.9 Beans, and two Morgan runabouts, an AC Sociable, and a Castle Three were among the 1921 Cyclecar registrations. Puzzling makes include a Parker and a Dennis-Portland taxi.
Of the motorcycles, that we youngsters tried to emulate, top popularity was shared by Triumph, Douglas, and Enfield and Royal Enfield in the ratio 36:34:32. Among the bigger machines there were two 7/9 Indians and one Harley-Davidson of that power. Makes that confuse me include Bordesley, Butterfields, ASL, Premier, Camplings (?Campion), Hughes & Davis, Vallois, 1 1/2 h.p. Smith, Neal-Dalm, and a Walton Eng. Co. However, the new licence-forms were proving difficult to fill up, and some entries were either deliberately flippant, or referred to home-built bicycles, witness: “Motoritis”, “Dispatch Rider’s”, “Marston” and “Thrasher”. I suppose we could get a breakdown of entirely new makes used in Wales by going through the 1922 registrations. For the present, however, I have had enough; I must now walk the dogs, along lanes in which it will be a surprise, even in these late-1970s, to meet a single motor vehicle, – W.B.